Journalist Ken Auletta has many powerful and media-savvy friends. On his acknowledgments page in “The Highwaymen,” he thanks, among others: Tina Brown, the powerhouse editor of the New Yorker, where he works; Jason Epstein, the legendary editor at Random House, where he publishes; and Amanda “Binky” Urban, the extremely successful literary agent, who is also his wife. One of these smart people should have done him the great service of advising him not to publish this book.
“The Highwaymen” is a collection of four years’ worth of Auletta’s New Yorker magazine profiles of the titans of the global communications conglomerates. Some journalists’ work lends itself well to this kind of collection. David Remnick, the New Yorker’s wunderkind, published a book of essays and profiles called “The Devil Problem and Other True Stories,” which is filled with minor portraiture likely to entertain and illuminate for years, if not decades. Joan Didion, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Janet Malcolm and Garry Wills are just a few of our current crop of literary journalists whose collected work is often greater than the sum of its parts. In addition to having the absolutely necessary critical eye, these writers report on people and places not for their own sake but to shed light or raise questions about issues that transcend the limited lives of their subjects.
Auletta, however, does not enter into the inner lives of his subjects sufficiently to illuminate their conflicts or dilemmas. Nor does he step back to examine the social and political impact of the brave new world that he believes they are creating. Rather, he simply follows them around, reports their comings and goings and presents them pretty much as they would wish to see themselves presented. The key question in these men’s lives--and they are all men--always seems to be the same: “To deal or not to deal? Whether ‘tis nobler to be rich, powerful and fly first-class . . . or use the corporate jet?”
Auletta’s journalism is not without virtues. As “communications columnist” for the New Yorker, he is to media titans what Bob Woodward is to politicians: a human vacuum cleaner. An energetic reporter with unparalleled access to the high-powered world of billion-dollar deal-making, Auletta writes as if he were a fly on the wall of corporate boardrooms or as if he were on “the white leather armchair in the Gulfstream that Viacom acquired from Paramount, which was whizzing him and [Frank] Biondi back to New York” as he was when he wrote about Sumner Redstone. Every time one media conglomerate attempts to swallow another or to get together to perform a corporate marriage involving more than a dollar sign followed by at least nine zeros, Auletta materializes to provide an insider’s blow-by-blow account. Oftentimes, he publishes while the maneuvering is underway, thereby informing the participants themselves of the effects of their machinations. He is therefore as much a player as a reporter. I would not be surprised if media-merger meetings have Auletta line items on the agenda, allowing public relations departments to rehearse spin tactics in advance.
But a fundamental conflict lies at the center of access journalism: When reporting on powerful people, every journalist must balance his commitment to his sources against his commitment to his readers. When a reporter is tied to a given beat, a beat in which the sources are more powerful than he is, he will be tempted to write his stories in a manner that will flatter the vanity of the people who are spinning him. If he insults their own ideas of themselves, they will be unlikely to make themselves available to him the next time around. Access reporters almost inevitably end up writing for their sources rather than for their readers.
Auletta’s problem is particularly acute because the people he has chosen to profile are largely millionaire (at least) moguls with rather oversized opinions of their self-worth. (This proclivity earned him a wickedly accurate parody in the New Republic, written by two New Yorker contributors, signed above the nom de plume, “Ken Feletta.”) The effect, for someone who does not share his admiration for media movers and shakers, can be unintentionally hilarious, as if one were reading a Marvel comic book for moguls.
Early in the book, the reader meets John Malone, the extremely conservative head of cable giant TCI, who considers the world of his classmates at Yale in 1958, as well as the world of contemporary Manhattan, to be “socialistic.” Malone is, to Auletta, “a cowboy . . . a man of science . . . [who] has always prided himself on flying solo . . . an intense listener . . . the most influential man in television . . . a loner [who] maintained a naive faith in the power of his argument, in logic even though he had no faith in the logic of Washington or the media.”
Most of Auletta’s subjects enjoy equally generous treatment. Two chapters after Malone, Viacom honcho Sumner Redstone receives more wild cards than his poker mates and wins a hand. This, says Auletta, “reveals the essential Redstone,” paraphrasing a Redstone subordinate. He is “a man who is ‘focused’ and absolutely determined to win.” And what if Redstone had been dealt only deuces? Would he be unfocused and determined to lose?
What is particularly odd about this book is the author’s habit of undercutting his own arguments without appearing to notice it. If these pieces were the product of pure reportage, Auletta would be free of a duty to analyze what he sees. But he is clearly more involved than that, which makes it all the more puzzling when he fails to point out obvious contradictions in his subjects’ behavior. Barry Diller is worried that he might lose “his conspicuous seat at restaurants” upon leaving Fox, but then he complains a page later of his competitors, “All they care about is status.” Malone, writes Auletta, “doesn’t care about titles” in a paragraph in which Malone is demanding the title of “vice chairman” at Paramount. An extreme example occurs when Auletta attempts to contrast the austere corporate culture of Redstone’s Viacom with that of its new partner. “At Viacom, no one, including Redstone, had a car and driver,” the author writes. In a parenthetical aside, however, Auletta--or perhaps the New Yorker fact-checking department--adds "(though Redstone now uses Martin Davis’ car, driver and airplane).” In other words, Viacom’s corporate frugality did not even make it through to the end of the sentence.
Such reporting may make sense on a week-to-week basis in the pages of the New Yorker, but it doesn’t work for a book. Taken together, they should not be read while operating heavy machinery. The name- and place-dropping are numbingly overpowering, given their frequent irrelevance to the point in question. “On the phone, whenever Ted Turner or anyone else calls [Malone], his conversations are unhurried, almost leisurely,” he notes. “Four of the five top-grossing movies in history--'Home Alone,’ ‘E.T.,’ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Forrest Gump'--were each rejected by at least one studio, Paramount Pictures’ vice chairman Barry L. London told Redstone one day at lunch in the commissary,” Auletta writes. Just what do Turner, London or the commissary have to do with anything? Not much, Bill Gates might say, were he to call me from his Gulfstream on my cell phone.
What is most evident from this book, however, and from the helpful addendum to each profile, is just how fleeting and unsubstantial are the effects of frenetic media deal-making. Auletta’s first profile is about Diller and serves as a kind of love letter to Diller’s new toy, the Apple Powerbook. Diller is “peek[ing] into the future,” expanding “video democracy” and ready to challenge the primacy of the big networks with his foray into home-shopping networks. But in this chapter’s addendum, Auletta explains, all of Diller’s plans failed to materialize, he left QVC “much richer, but unemployed” and, of course, Apple’s Powerbook appears on its way into the historical ashcan.
Auletta’s profile of Malone purports to be about “the most influential man in television.” In the addendum, however, he notes that Malone’s “company was choking on debt; his stock price plunged”; and this cowboy loner was, once again, “looking for a merger partner.” Finally, “The Highwaymen” suffers the fate of being quickly dated by the vicissitudes of the industry. Viacom’s Redstone was on top of the world in October 1993 when Auletta’s profile appeared in the New Yorker. He was still there, according to Auletta’s January 1995 report, when the author profiled his top executive, Frank Biondi. On this late-April morning as I am writing this review, however, Viacom’s stock has plunged precipitously. The New York Times business section contains a news analysis entitled “Viacom’s Deal Maker Falters in Running What He Buys.” Redstone fired Biondi more than a year ago.
The great--and painful--irony of this decidedly unironic collection is that inside it, somewhere, there is a timely and important book struggling to get out. Journalism and communications are undergoing a rapid transformation, with implications well beyond the profession itself. These changes have crucial, but only dimly comprehended, implications for our democracy, our culture and our economy. In the book’s introduction, Auletta offers up 16 maxims derived from his reporting. Among them: “There will be more concentration of corporate power and more competition,” “Technology threatens bigness and ideology” and “Synergy is no friend of journalism.” A more thoughtful and critically distant book that investigated such questions would have been a great idea. The consolidation of corporate media power in this country has proceeded at an alarming pace. Someone needs to make sense of it and to ask some discomforting questions about these moguls and the democratic implications of their mega-mergers. And despite their unimpressive earnings on Viacom’s balance sheets, books are the only place to do it. But not this one.